FAYETTEVILLE — A tough schedule, injuries and breaking in some new players left South Carolina’s basketball team with a 5-7 record when the Gamecocks opened SEC play at Florida.
“It’s hard to win games when you’ve got those three things in front of you,” South Carolina coach Frank Martin said this week. “Some time in early December we started getting a little healthier.”
Martin said being forced to play freshmen more minutes against opponents that included Virginia, Michigan and Clemson also helped them grow up quickly and made him have additional patience with them.
“So we’ve continued to get better, which is what I push for,” Martin said. “I’ll leave it up for debate, but in my heart I believe my teams keep getting better as the season goes on because of the way we do things.”
South Carolina won at Florida 71-69 to start what has been a strong showing the first half of the conference schedule.
The Gamecocks (11-11, 6-3) are in fourth place in the SEC going into their game against the University of Arkansas (14-8, 5-4) on Saturday at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, S.C.
“I think Frank’s teams are always going to be resilient and disciplined and tough,” Florida coach Mike White said. “I think they’ve got a good mix of experience and youth.
“They really defend you, they can make jump shots and they can also score on the interior.”
South Carolina forward Chris Silva, a 6-9 senior who will make his 99th career start on Saturday, is averaging 13.6 points, 6.9 rebounds and 2.0 blocked shots.
“Silva’s had a phenomenal career,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “It seems like the guy has been there for six years. He just keeps getting better.”
Silva was limited to 19 minutes at Florida because of foul trouble, but he scored 18 points and shot 5 of 6 from the field and hit 8 of 9 free throws.
“Silva’s terrific,” White said. “When he’s on the court, he demands so much attention and he draws so many fouls. Then defensively he’s as good as there is in our league.”
South Carolina has two freshman starters in guard A.J. Lawson (averaging 13.2 points) and forward Keyshawn Bryant (9.0 points) to go with Silva, junior forward Maik Kotsar (8.2 points) and senior Trey Campbell (6.4 points), a graduate transfer from Georgetown.
Bryant has filled in for sophomore Justin Minaya, who started 30 games last season, but hasn’t played since the fifth game this season because of a knee injury that required surgery.
Senior guard Hassani Gravett plays off the bench, but is averaging 10.3 points and 28.5 minutes. Sophomore forward Felipe Haase is averaging 6.9 points off the bench.
“Frank Martin’s teams always play hard and they don’t beat themselves,” said Auburn coach Bruce Pearl, whose Tigers lost at South Carolina 80-77. “It’s hard for you to run your stuff against them.
“But Arkansas offensively sort of takes what the defense gives them, so I would think they would be able to handle South Carolina’s defense a little bit better than teams that have more structured looks that South Carolina can take away.”
Tom Crean, in his first season as Georgia’s coach, said he was impressed by South Carolina’s speed when the Gamecocks beat the Bulldogs 86-80 at Stegeman Coliseum.
“The one thing that is so strong in them is how quick they can play offensively,” Crean said. “It’s very hard to harness those guys and slow them down when you look at Gravette and Campbell and Lawson.
“They’re playing very, very fast and getting up and down the court and making plays.”
Anderson said the Gamecocks — who are averaging 74.2 points in SEC games compared to 74.1 for the Razorbacks — are playing at a faster pace than Martin’s teams have in the past.
“He has those kind of players,” Anderson said of the Gamecocks being more uptempo. “With the young guys, they’re a little more athletic.”
The Gamecocks lost at Kentucky 76-48 on Tuesday night.
“They’re coming off of a tough loss at Kentucky,” Anderson said.
“So we know there going to come out with a lot of emotion and we’ve got to be able to withstand that.”